Small Fortune

| August 02, 2005

“If you are a fleet owner of a 20-truck company in a small town, you go to church with your driver, know his family, know who he runs around with and don’t have to worry about what’s lurking in his background,” Owen says. “You probably also dispatch, drive from time to time and are on a first-name basis with all your drivers. It’s why so many small, successful fleets are operated by former owner-operators. The better a company is at relating to their drivers, the better the retention.”

Small fleets often can pick up good drivers by offering shorter routes with more days off, which means more home time.

“Truckers say they want the money, but the good ones, the ones with families, will take less money for more home time,” Owen says.

A small trucking company is usually outside a major metropolitan area, which often helps with driver-friendly scheduling, Owen says. “Property is less expensive, traffic is minimal, and with 20 trucks, you can get your guys home for the Friday night football game.” Larger fleets are beginning to duplicate this convenience with drop-off and pick-up at regional terminals spaced like stations in a relay race, but this can be costly and difficult for many of them.

Stephens Carriers, a 22-truck fleet in Hendersonville, Tenn., relies partly on very careful screening to build a driving force that has a low turnover rate of 34 percent. “We start off by being very selective about who we hire,” says President Terry Stephens. “I look for attitude. It’s the first thing I look for, and I’ve got a sixth sense after all these years. I don’t want the takers. I want the givers.”

Stephens backs up his sixth sense with psychological profiles and background checks, but he says good employees are attracted to his fleet by its family-friendly corporate culture. “I want the drivers to communicate with each other. I want them to value home time. I want them to get to know each other.”

To facilitate that camaraderie, he provides drivers with cell phones and a list of every driver’s number. “If one of my trucks passes another on the highway, they call each other, say hello, catch up,” Stephens says. It makes the job less lonely and the drivers feel connected.

“I’m a religious person, and I try to live my faith,” Stephens says. “I believe in treating everyone like I’d like to be treated. We are known to be honest and fair. I know every driver, and they know they can come talk to me any time. I care about them, and I think that it shows.”

Most small fleets rely on word of mouth and local newspaper advertisements to recruit new drivers. The smaller the fleet, the more likely friends and extended family make up the bulk of the drivers.

“Lots of our drivers come back after finding out the grass really isn’t that much greener on the other side,” Rosie Barnes says.

One reason is that too many fleets make pie-in-the-sky promises, Harlyn Barnes says.

“It’s impossible for the CEO of a giant fleet to walk around the yard, pat a trucker on the back, know the name of his kids, his grandkids and how he was treated at the dock,” he says. “They can’t do it, so they make all kinds of outlandish promises.”

That’s one thing Barnes refuses to do. For example, “We don’t advertise that we try to get our drivers home every weekend, but we do our best to make it happen.”

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